It’s not possible to overstate the importance to libertarians of Richard Rothstein’s shocking The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America.

It’s a great book and a damning indictment of the abuse of federal, state and local government power by racist politicians, housing policy-makers, urban planners, interstate highway designers and bureaucrats in the 20th century.

As I commented in Slate’s review of the book, one of the major ways government segregated America and keeps it racially segregated that Rothstein doesn’t go deeply into is the drawing of geographical government-mandated school districts by cities and suburbs.

Too few people ever think to question the fairness or social value of public school districts.

And clearly high-end and middle-class suburbs are happy to use legal district lines to keep real estate values up and keep poor people’s kids out of their fine schools.

But we don’t have a public food system that forces people by law to shop at their neighborhood grocery store; people of any color can travel to any grocery in town or in the ‘burbs to shop; there are no grocery districts; there’s maximum grocery choice for all.

We don’t have a public car system that forces people by law to shop for a car at their neighborhood car dealer. There’s maximum car choice for everyone in the city, regardless of their address.

Compare those examples to how our public (near monopoly) school system forces people to send their kids to schools in their carefully government-drawn school district — often segregated neighborhoods.

Segregated neighborhoods (created in large part, as Rothstein’s book shows, by overtly racist federal housing and lending policies that were available only to Caucasians) therefore begat segregated public schools.

Today only rich or richer people can afford to send their kids, white or black, across town to private or parochial schools; poor people and their kids are stuck in their crappy neighborhood schools.

If the American public wants “free” taxpayer-supported public schooling for their kids, the schools will have to be paid for or subsidized by taxpayers somehow.

But segregated and lousy public schools would disappear fairly quickly if mandated school district lines were erased and education “customers” — i.e., parents — could be free to shop in a metro-wide market for schooling the same way they shop for groceries or SUVs.

Instead of food stamps, poorer parents could have school stamps. Maybe we could call them something like “school vouchers.”

 

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